University of Wisconsin alum Aaron Ohlmann recently produced a new original documentary Netflix series, “Larry Charles’ Dangerous World of Comedy.” Known for making award-winning films in dangerous places, this series took Ohlmann to Nigeria, Somalia and Saudi Arabia, among other places across the globe.
After graduating in 2003, Ohlmann moved to Los Angeles to work on documentaries and music videos. His path to filmmaking was a trial and error process, though. After a failed attempt at majoring in philosophy and art, Ohlmann made the switch to follow his passion.
“I kept getting distracted — documentaries were something that helped keep me engaged and dealt with my curiosity about the world,” Ohlmann said.
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Ohlmann said his recent series was the brainchild of Larry Charles — a man known for his boundary-pushing humor. Ohlmann is a fan of Charles’ work, who is best recognized for directing “Seinfeld,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and “Borat.” Ohlmann claims “Borat” to be one of the most hilarious movies he’s ever seen.
The idea of this new series came from Charles’ curiosity about comedians. There was a realization that in other parts of the world, telling the wrong joke can have severely high repercussions. Ohlmann said as he had previous experience producing films in complicated parts of the world, a friend thought they’d be a good fit to work together.
“It just instantly connected,” Ohlmann said. “I loved the idea.”
Ohlmann said the best part of this series for him was the opportunity to go back to places he’s been and cover them in a different kind of way. Ohlmann has done documentary work for VICE covering poverty and displacement in Iraq, “covering it in ways we all know it has been covered,” he said.
“Larry Charles’ Dangerous World of Comedy” allowed Ohlmann to tell a new type of story.
“We get a chance to see a real and authentic representation of parts of the world that are only known in one-dimensional ways,” Ohlmann said.
Seeing how these war-zone countries have a vibrant comedy scene was the most memorable part of this project for Ohlmann.
Though some would classify traveling to locations such as Saudi Arabia to be dangerous, Ohlmann was more concerned about how humor would translate there.
“You can learn another person’s language, eat their food, understand their architecture, but humor is one of those things that is the last and deepest thing to cut through,” Ohlmann said.
Rather than focusing on the danger of their locations, Ohlmann and Charles wanted to make sure they could document this series in a way that does justice. Ohlmann, who has years of experience traveling to “dangerous” locations, said it’s possible to go just about anywhere safely if you do it right.
One of the more profound experiences of producing this series for Ohlmann was meeting Ahmad Al-Basheer, whom Ohlmann refers to as the Jon Stewart of Iraq. He said Ahmad Al-Basheer is one of the most important voices in Iraq. Al-Basheer currently does stand-up comedy show for a broadcasted audience of 19 million people in exile due to the current Iraq situation.
“It’s incredible to see how he uses humor to, in his own way, make the world a better place,” Ohlmann said.
Even multiple near-death experiences haven’t stopped Al-Basheer. Ohlmann recognized that no comedians in the U.S. have to take those kind of risks. Ohlmann said in other parts of the world, humor is used as a survival mechanism.
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So far, Ohlmann said the feedback this Netflix series has gotten has been overwhelmingly positive. The directing and producing duo have been getting calls from people in all parts of the world.
“People are hungry for stories about humans and comedy and laughter in those parts of the world as well,” Ohlmann said.
As for advice for aspiring filmmakers, Ohlmann kept it simple.
“It’s a good idea to just do the thing that you want to do,” Ohlmann said. “If you want to make films, beg, borrow, steal a camera and do it. Don’t spend too much time working on something else and waiting to do that thing.”